Saturday, August 2, 2014

Fakery: Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight


The title of Woody Allen's new romantic comedy Magic in the Moonlight promises more than it delivers. Not only is there little in the way of a romantic impulse to be found here, you'd be hard pressed to find that the picture even has a pulse. As if suffering from tired poor blood, Magic in the Moonlight comes across as a weary exercise in willed enchantment. Set in 1928, the movie begins in Berlin where an illusionist Wei Ling Soo performs feats of magic, including making an elephant disappear, to the strains of Stravinsky, Ravel and Beethoven in front of a wildly enthusiastic audience. After the show, we discover that Wei Ling is actually Stanley (Colin Firth), a British cynic and misanthrope, who not only castigates his employees, but even casually dismisses his admirers.

Later he meets up with Howard (Simon McBurney), an old friend who is another illusionist, who enlists Stanley to travel with him to the Côte d'Azur where the Catledges, a wealthy American family, have become transfixed by a young clairvoyant, Sophie (Emma Stone). The hope is in having Stanley expose her as a fraud before she bilks the Americans of their fortune and marries Brice Catledge (Hamish Linklater), a fawning goof who is so smitten with her that he's given to continually serenading her with a ukulele. Although Stanley with his cynic's disposition seems the perfect choice for debunking Sophie's supposed gifts, he ends up falling in love with her when he discovers that she may be the real article.

Colin Firth
If you're going to make a movie about the romantic awakening of a curmudgeon, one who uses fakery to hoodwink an audience into believing it's magic, then you need an actor who suggests the possibility of believing in the extraordinary even if he chooses to deny it. Colin Firth might have brought a patrician wit to this arrogant bore who has the libidinous rug pulled out from under him, but instead Firth's reserve as an actor snuffs out any spark of life in the character. When he begins to fall in love with Sophie, he could be just as easily be agonizing over what socks to wear. Although many of my female friends swooned over Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy in the 1995 television production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it was likely because Firth misinterpreted Darcy’s inarticulateness as a sign of the character’s quiet smouldering sexuality. (Darcy was conceived by Austen, however, as a man incapable of revealing his deeper desires because of his asocial rectitude.) In recent years, Colin Firth started to dip much deeper into that reserve by unmasking what his mannered behaviour had always buried – as he did in A Single Man (2009), The King's Speech (2010), and the little seen drama, Genova (2008), where Firth provided cracks in his character armour as a grief-stricken father trying to help his children through a horrible family tragedy. In Magic in the Moonlight, the self-protective armour is firmly in place as Stanley never challenges his moral superiority, even after it has been revealed to be self-delusion and snobbery. Because of this, nothing feels truly at stake in the picture and the romance itself fizzles.

Emma Stone.
Anyone who has swooned over the dizzying comic sparkle of Emma Stone, especially in parts of Easy A (2010), and the whole of The Amazing Spider-man (2012) and Gangster Squad (2013), will be severely dismayed to see how Woody Allen dampens her percolating effervescence into a lame-brained ditzyness. Since Stanley represents the rationalist skeptic in Woody Allen, the man who debunks the supernatural, we only see her through his eyes. Except for her opening scene in meeting Stanley, where her lubricious grin stretches across the screen to cast its own entrancing charm, Allen shrinks her captivating temperament into a petulant narcissism. By the end of the movie, with its plot twists, the very essence of the story itself even gets undermined by a tired game of deception and self-deception. A number of eager performers, from Eileen Atkins as Stanley's elderly Aunt Vanessa and Marcia Gay Harden as Sophie's mother, are left with little to play but waxworks while wizard cinematographer Darius Khondji, who drapes the images in the rich realist colours of Gustave Courbet, can't do anything to animate the inertia of the characters in the frame.

When Midnight in Paris (2011) became a huge critical and box office success, it was no fluke. It had been many years since Woody Allen had been the voice of the shaggy and diminutive outsider who tweaked the Wasp stereotypes that came to define masculinity and femininity. In his first films, he made us comfortable with our neurosis. Audiences came to identify with this scrawny and funny intellectual who helped us relax around our own self-doubts and self-consciousness. But once he won the Academy Award for Best Director with Annie Hall in 1978, a comedy about neurosis, he was no longer on the outside. He became the reluctant insider who was being finally acclaimed as an artist. As if trying to live up to that acclaim, Woody Allen started to distrust his comic voice, which he told Newsweek belonged at "the children's table," in order to emulate those dramatic artists he worshipped. It was his way to be worthy of being in the Insider's Club. Soon his films were made in the spirit of Ingmar Bergman (Interiors, September, Another Woman), Federico Fellini (Stardust Memories), Fritz Lang (Shadows and Fog), Charlie Chaplin (Manhattan), Arthur Miller (Crimes and Misdemeanors), or they were empty pastiches of An American Tragedy (Match Point) or A Streetcar Named Desire (Blue Jasmine).What was missing from all of these pictures was his contemporary voice which now had taken refuge in the worshipped work of the past.

But Midnight in Paris turned that conflict into its subject. It was a delightful comedy about the perils of that refuge and how to become a relevant voice in the present again, even if the times you lived in didn't carry the same renaissance spirit of the late Sixties. But Magic in the Moonlight feels like a refutation of Midnight in Paris's fresh revelations, which for a brief moment returned Woody Allen back to being a contemporary figure again; an artist who seemed at home in the present. In Magic in the Moonlight, Allen has not only abandoned that effervescent spirit of discovery, he doesn't even give the weightless pleasures of the uncanny their due. His humbug spirit here is not only earthbound, it's stillborn. What's even worse is that the film continues to recycle themes about God and existence that Allen has already worn thin. So rather than succumb to the sweet alchemy of erotic possibilities, which the title itself implies, Woody Allen drains the picture of any sexual tension and carnal humour as if romance were now nothing more for him than a parlour trick.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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